“I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.” — Malcolm X
There’s widespread consensus that television is currently experiencing a golden age of the serialized drama characterized by the literary format of the novel being applied to TV. The staggering list of high quality serialized television novels on the air right now includes Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, House of Cards, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, just to name a few.
HBO’s mob drama The Sopranos, which began in 1999, is largely responsible for triggering this tsunami of high-quality serialized programming, which imported the artistic sensibility and production value of film to the small screen. Shows like Six Feet Under and Lost soon followed. AMC’s Breaking Bad, which ended last year, is perhaps the high water mark of this flood, representing a pinnacle of artistic achievement during this renaissance of the medium.
But now that Breaking Bad is off the air, there’s one television drama that stands above the rest; fearlessly, creatively, and artistically redefining the possibilities and the limits of the medium. FX’s American Horror Story is unlike anything else on the air right now (or perhaps ever before), both in terms of its general concept and its ability to put forward a bold artistic vision, which includes powerful social commentary, all while being deliciously entertaining.
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk created a unique format for a television series. Each season of American Horror Story is a self-contained mini-series, and a troupe of actors play different parts each year. This concept allows the show to explore new themes and subjects each season while retaining a core group of talented actors who thrive in a variety of roles.
The focal point of the cast is the magnificent Jessica Lange, whose career has been reinvigorated by the three roles she’s played so far. In season 1, retroactively named “Murder House,” she played a conniving next door neighbor to a family who moves into a house that traps the souls of anyone who dies inside. In season 2, “Asylum,” she played a nun who oversees a horrifying mental hospital in the mid-1960s. In the latest season, “Coven,” she plays a witch bent on obtaining eternal life no matter the cost to the coven she leads.
The cast also includes Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Frances Conroy, Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga, Denis O’Hare, Zachary Quinto, Dylan McDermott, and Jamie Bewer, all of whom have all appeared in at least two of the three seasons. There have also been strong supporting roles by major actors such as Kathy Bates, Joseph Fiennes, James Cromwell, Angela Bassett, Connie Britton, Danny Huston, Chloe Sevigny, Kate Mara, Emma Roberts, and Gabourey Sidibe. Ryan Murphy has admitted that he’s had Academy Award winning actors practically beg him for parts on the show.
American Horror Story is a highly stylized drama. Virtually every shot is pushed to its artistic limit. The camera floats around the action and establishes a perpetual sense of unease by presenting awkward angles that bend and twist reality in a way that enhances the atmosphere of the show without being a distraction to the narrative or appearing cheesy. The show blends the real world with a spiritual realm, and brilliantly treats each with complete legitimacy. At any given moment you can’t be sure of what you’re seeing, or even if a character is dead or alive. And the hideously creepy opening title sequences, which perfectly set the tone for the show, are amazing achievements in their own right.
The show is totally diabolical and unrelenting, and it’s not for the faint of heart. There have been Horror shows on television before, but none quite as jarring, visceral, and purely entertaining as this. It is also unique in its ability to incorporate deliberate social commentary into its narrative. It’s a show that definitely has something to say, which justifies the violence and gore during its descent into darkness. American Horror Story wants to shock, horrify, and entertain, but it also illuminates the repulsive underbelly of America that is all too often kept safely out of sight.
Each season, with a different setting and cast of characters, American Horror Story has new themes to explore. The first season, “Murder House,” seems to be about the dark side of American domestic life, the illusion of the American Dream, and the haunting of the past. It deals with infidelity and betrayal within families, and the struggle to maintain family cohesion through the inevitable harsh realities of life. It’s a horrific exploration of the “traditional family” and the Murder House setting allows for a bleak and morbid view of the idealized American household. Secrets don’t stay secret, the dead don’t stay dead, and the past always comes back to haunt you. Moving into the perfect big house is nothing but an attempt to avoid facing problems, and so much is sacrificed to maintain the appearance of a perfect family. “Murder House” seems to imply the question: is it worth it?
“Asylum” takes on the treatment of the mentally ill in America and deals with religious based oppression, race relations, and discrimination against homosexuals, all of which are issues deeply embedded in America’s roots. The second season is an absolute television masterpiece that ends up in a totally different emotional place than where it begins due to its meticulously crafted story arc. There are characters you loathe at the start but find yourself rooting for toward the end, and vice versa, and all the plot lines are tied off in the most emotionally satisfying way possible. It’s a journey from darkness to the light in a way that is oddly uplifting because of the depth of the terror experienced along the way. “Aslyum” shows there can be hope and redemption, even for the most lost among us, as long as oppressive conventions are broken with and love for humanity is kept in your heart.
The third season, “Coven,” is perhaps the boldest, most over the top chapter of American Horror Story, and its critique of American society is the sharpest the series has offered so far. It follows a coven of witches who are under assault both from society at large as well as from a rival group of voodoo witches. American Horror Story has always been a female driven show, but the focus on the all-female coven brings themes of women’s oppression in society into focus. Zoe, the newest member of the coven, can kill men by having sex with them. Madison, another young witch, is raped early in the season, and she kills the men responsible with a flick of her wrist. These are the ultimate fears of a patriarchal society that wants to maintain ownership over women’s sexuality. “Coven” also explores America’s crime of slavery and its deeply entrenched and ongoing racial discrimination. In one moving scene, a black witch forces a racist serial killer to watch the mini-series Roots as punishment for her crimes.
American Horror Story tackles these issues head on, and the show definitely has a point of view. It’s a perfect demonstration of the way art can be utilized to offer pointed social commentary in a highly entertaining form. It’s a free-form, sometimes abstract show, but despite its avante garde presentation, or perhaps because of it, it clearly articulates a political worldview that condemns inequality, discrimination, and oppression of all kinds, while putting forward strong female characters who challenge a male-dominated world. The show’s social critiques are organically embedded into the narrative, which allows the audience to be horrified and repulsed by the fundamental ills of the system they live under. American Horror Story does not hesitate when forcing viewers to deal with brutal and uncomfortable truths.
In each season of American Horror Story real life characters are introduced. “Murder House” incorporates the famous Black Dahlia murder, as well as a sub-plot with a Columbine-like school shooting. “Asylum” imagines a grown up Anne Frank, and also deals with an ex-Nazi party member who performs sadistic medical experiments on human beings. “Coven” brings to life the true story of the New Orleans serial killer known as the Axeman, as well as Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a New Orleans socialite who tortured and murdered her slaves. These historical figures are woven into the fabric of the show and reinforce American Horror Story‘s underlying concept of exploring the deepest fears and horrors of American society.
In this golden age of the television drama there’s a great show out there for everyone. If The Walking Dead or Falling Skies aren’t your thing, you might love Game of Thrones or House of Cards. However, because American Horror Story is unafraid to approach uncomfortable subjects in the most grotesque manner possible it’s obviously not a show for everyone, but it’s possibly the best and most important show on television today because it exposes the horrors at the roots of America through a unique artistic vision. It pries up the floorboards to examine the foundation upon which America is built, and it’s not afraid to reveal the ugly truth, while still holding on to the hope that people can be good. As Kathy Bates said in an interview with Collider, “That’s what I like about what Ryan [Murphy] does. There’s a reason why it’s called ‘American’ Horror Story.”
The show is uniquely American, both in form and in subject. Set in any other country it would be a wildly different show. From its inception America has been wrestling with fundamental contradictions; “founded by slave owners who wanted to be free,” as the late, great George Carlin was fond of pointing out. American Horror Story dives right into those contradictions and uproots them for all to see, creating an unnerving and terrifying experience in the most gratifying and entertaining way possible.